Taming Telecommuting

FRAMINGHAM (07/03/2000) - When was the last time you examined the section of your company's remote access policy that deals with IT issues?

If your company's remote access policy fails to address IT requirements or you don't even have a formal policy, then it's time to start thinking about creating one. After all, telecommuting is here to stay, and if you want your organization to get the most out of its remote workforce, a solid policy that covers training, hardware and software support, security, bandwidth needs and other important topics is highly recommended.

A fundamental telecommuting issue that IT managers and users must understand is that a different set of rules apply to technical support in remote environments. "People love to "telework" - it's great for the manager, great for the employee, great for the company, and there are a lot of things in favor of it," says Joseph Roitz, director of information technology at AT&T Corp.'s Environment, Health and Safety division. He happens to work out of his home office outside Dallas. "But if you want to make it happen, [end users] are kind of forced to become self-sufficient."

Besides the obvious lack of IT support staff down the hall, Roitz also notes teleworkers can't turn to more knowledgeable co-workers when a computer problem crops up. "When you work at home, you actually have to get those manuals out and read them," he says.

Lisa Shepherd, IT coordinator for the remote work program at First Union National Bank in Charlotte, North Carolina, says additional training can help make up for the lack of on-site help. "We feel that employees who work remotely must receive a certain level of technical training before they can work effectively," she says.

Planning a policy

According to John Girard, an analyst with Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut, a well-planned IT policy is essential for remote worker programs.

Failure to establish a policy can result in a variety of problems.

"Supporting users reactively is a tremendous waste of resources," Girard says.

"IT departments have to spend more time administering remote workers. If they don't plan ahead, they will lose a lot of money and waste a lot of user time."

Girard says network managers who assume home workers and office workers have the same basic needs are making a big mistake. In reality, the two groups are very different. For instance, examining a workstation or fixing a software glitch might take a few minutes if the machine is in the same building, but not if the equipment is halfway across the state or on the other side of the globe.

Unlike traditional offices, where 20 users might share one printer, in the telecommuting world 20 remote workers will usually require 20 printers - and the resources to maintain them.

"That is what happens a lot now," Girard says. "The IT group assumes they can use their office procedures, and whammo - they go into reactive mode, and none of their existing practices work."

Playing an endless game of catch-up with remote access problems can be extremely costly. Girard cites a Gartner Group study that predicts remote users will proportionally generate four times more network and security help requests than office users through the year 2004. The total cost of ownership for desktop and network remote access support will range up to 45 percent higher than office workers during the same period.

Bandwidth is another important issue that is frequently overlooked. While you can upgrade bandwidth to solve performance problems on the corporate network, this isn't an option for most telecommuters. Analog modems will remain the most common connection method for remote users through 2003, according to Gartner forecasts. As a result, many applications that work well on the LAN will continue to be slow or inaccessible in remote environments.

Of course, you can't forget security. Girard recommends a full firewall at every location that connects to the Internet. While VPNs may present a secure, inexpensive and effective alternative to leased lines and dial-up connections, they may pose unanticipated costs related to training and new software.

Dealing with regional ISPs can also be frustrating, with varying fee structures and sometimes incompatible services. Furthermore, VPNs can cause problems with certain applications, which add to IT managers' support burden and user headaches, he says.

First Union's Shepherd says it is crucial to address the human side of the remote access equation and not just the technology when drawing up a policy.

"Mobile working and telecommuting is by no means just a technology issue," she says. "It's also a space issue, and most importantly, a human issue. To be successful, these three components cannot be separated."

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